Brake For Speed: The McLaren MP4-12 Story
An ingenious idea that was banned because of its name.
Formula one teams spend money in sacks for gaining a quarter of a second. They would shower their money on the R&D department for developing a screw if that could make their car go around a track tenth of a second faster than their competition. But, sometimes, millions are not the answer, sometimes, it's just a simple great idea and fifty quids that could get your car to paint your opponents in your mirrors. And that is exactly what McLaren did with their MP4/12.
McLaren's then chief engineer Steve Nichols was thinking about a new way to keep the car's understeer in control. His search for something that would make the car fall in love with the apex, and not run awry to the other side, ended up in a separate brake. A brake, to limit the speed of the inside rear tire during cornering. The plan was rather simple. They just had to put in an extra master cylinder, a length of Aeroquip (brake hose) and a new pedal. The result was quite staggering. On his first run, Mika went around the track half a second quicker. In F1 terms that could be the difference between a pole position and being unable to see who won because of the tears.
The rear right brake glowing on the MP4-12.
So, this is how it worked. The car would have an extra pedal that would work the calipers on a predetermined rear tire. Which tire gets the braking capability depended on the track. If it was a track with tight right turns, the brake would be on the right-hand side and vice-versa. When cornering, the driver would tap the new brakes and accelerate at the same time. This means more power goes to the rear wheels, but, the power to the inside wheels would be cut short by the new brake. So, in effect, the outer wheels would spin faster, making the car corner with almost no understeer. This new pedal had more pressure underneath it so that the drivers don't accidentally engage it.
Mika and David finish 1 and 2 in the 1998 season opener
You might not have seen this coming, but, when the word got out, it was banned by the FIA. How did the world come to know about this? It wasn't the FIA or the competition who noticed the glowing clues. Developing the images from the Austrian GP, F1 photographer Darren Heath, saw something curious on both McLaren's. Coming out of a corner, the brakes on both the cars, lit up like a half decorated Christmas tree. Nobody brakes out of a corner, that is like racing to catch a yellow light and braking when you see it turn green, you just don't do that.
The setup in the foot-well.
The story of how Heath got concrete evidence is much like a Hollywood thriller. Even though Heath and his boss, Matt Bishop, pondered over the gimmick behind the hot cake of a brake they couldn't quiet pin it. Heath suspected that it was some kind of a separate brake. But they had to take a peek inside the cockpit to know for sure. So they devised a plan. Heath would go to the next race, which was the Luxembourg GP at the Nurburgring, and wait for a car to retire. Bishop, who will be in the UK, would see on TV if any of the cars retired and inform Heath. As luck would have both cars came in at the same time. But unfortunately, an ad popped up at the exact time, blinding Bishop. Without the remote assistance, Heath found the cars parked up. Coulthard's car had the steering on, so he couldn't get his camera in the foot-well. Mika, however, had taken his steering wheel, and Heath saw the mysterious pedal, confirming his suspicions. Even Mclaren themselves called Heath's uncovering of the mystic pedal "a brilliant piece of clever, investigative journalism – and a fantastically memorable scoop". It was like that line from The Anchorman, the famous meme, "I'm not even mad, that's amazing".
The MP4-12 smokin' it.
The funny thing was when all the rivals went crying to the FIA. They didn't have the first clue as to what was going on. By 1998 McLaren developed the system so that the driver could choose which brake was applied. This was done via a switch on the drivers steering. This added to the confusion among the butt hurt teams. Even though everyone was screaming 'illegal' and 'ban', no one knew why it was illegal. The stories were kind of funny considering that they came from the people who are considered 'elites' in all aspects motoring. One story was that they switched off all the brakes except the one they wanted. Finally, Ferrari was able to push the FIA to ban the technology arguing that it was four-wheel steering that McLaren was using. The accusation was not because of even a remote connection to four-wheel steering, as there was no realigning of the wheels involved. No, it was because of the name. McLaren had called their new innovation 'brake-steer'. So, it was banned because of the name and, more importantly, because Ferrari couldn't figure out how the hell it worked or what on god's green earth it was. Ferrari even went as far as to send the FIA pictures of tanks, explaining that they turned by braking one of the tracks. Alain Prost argued that this contraption should be banned because it would take millions to develop such a technology when, in fact, it was just fifty quids and some stuff they already had on the back of their truck.
Even though it was banned from the race, McLaren still uses this technology on their cars. The P1 had an open differential, for reasons unknown, and, basically, the same brake-steer technology. One difference being that it was all controlled by computers. As a fan of the McLaren F1 team, watching the current scene, it is hard to look into the innovative and competitive past it had.